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Books: The gaucho knife fighter as Angel of Death

Collected Fictions

by Jorge Luis Borges trs Andrew Hurley Penguin pounds 20

The discovery of Borges by the anglophone world took place in the early 1960s. There was something disturbing about this little-known Argentine's writing, a playful but profound reworking of received themes and stories, with a Latin American addition of fantasy. For a profound thinker, Borges was strangely preoccupied with R L Stevenson and Kipling, with dreams, with labyrinths, with mirrors, with detective stories, with arcane trivia and, most peculiar of all, with gaucho knife-fighters.

However difficult it was for the more prosaic to come to terms with these disparate elements, no-one was in any doubt that, on the strength of Ficciones, Borges was a great writer. This new collection, translated by Andrew Hurley, contains all of his stories from various editions of his work, which have overlapped one another in the past but never been published in a single volume in English. Hurley offers comprehensive and warm notes to explain various references, and there are Borges's own introductions and notes to add both information and ambiguity to what is a glittering and ironic collection.

The stories come from eight previous collections including Ficciones, which was published in 1944, but not translated into English until l962. The last section, "Shakespeare's Memory", was published in 1983. Borges says that he spent much of his life obsessively playing with "a few ideas". Indeed these ideas can be seen to run like a thread through the 50 years of Borges's writing. But they provided him with a unique way of looking at the world and the nature of human striving.

There are, of course, the famous stories like "The South", which Borges says, playfully, may be his best story, but there are also exquisite meditations such as "Borges and I" which is about his fame and the sense of separation this has produced from his real self, and "A Prayer" about the nature of mortality. The greatest joy of this collection is that it gives an insight into the complex and delightful character of Borges's mind over those many years. Although he professes to change in later years from "baroque" to realist writer, and although he claims to prefer Protestant pragmatism to romantic extravagance, there is at the heart of everything he writes a kind of sacred mystery. So often do his characters - almost invariably men - try to dream themselves into a different state, that we see plainly why Borges has been saddled with the charge of being the father of magic realism. When Isabel Allende said that in Latin America "we walk along the borderline of fantasy, to incorporate the subjective into daily life," she might have been talking of Borges.

Yet having read this collection, I see that there is an irony in Borges that is lacking in many magic realists, including Allende: Borges seems to be more interested in the longing for transcendence that characterises humans than in magical states. The gaucho knife-fighter is, in all his strange machismo, a sort of angel of death, a person with a higher destiny, quite at odds with the squalid world in which he lives. And like most of Borges's stories, his gaucho tales are set in the not-too-distant past which corresponds more to his reading than to history, as if the youthful Borges applied what he read from so many sources, to what he found in Argentina. So detectives become magical and gangsters are mythologised.

Borges's characters dream, like South American Indians, because they aspire to some higher state of consciousness, as in the extraordinary "Blue Tigers". Yet in these dreams, we find planted there by Borges shards and fragments of literature belonging to Kipling and Wilde and above all to Stevenson.

Nobody before Borges had ever attempted this strange and wonderful mixture of arcana, popular literature, national myth, the nature of time and classical themes. Now we can see it in all its intense and disturbing brilliance, certain that we will never see anything like it again.